Do You Feel Lucky, Volunteer Managers?

Do you feel luck, volunteer managers?Editor’s Note: As part of this month’s Nonprofit Blog Carnival, Carey Fritz, the newest member of our Education & Training team, has written about the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of her experiences in volunteer management.

When I began my position as a volunteer coordinator at an urban sexual violence counseling center, my enthusiasm and passion were so great I never imagined I would one day be asking myself, “Do I feel lucky?” just as astonished as the criminal caught by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry.

My role coordinating the 24-hour hotline was seen as very valuable within the organization.  The hotline was screened as the organization’s measure of success when it came to advocating for higher funding needs as a large urban center in a state with many rural centers.  In contrast, my work coordinating the volunteer program – which included delivering the 65-hour state Sexual Assault Counselor Certification – was not considered to be as critical by funders.

This conflict came as a surprise, and as I struggled with the results of this disconnect, I realized how important it is for us as volunteer engagement professionals to reflect on the good, the bad and even the ugly aspects of volunteer program management.

The Good:

Most of you already know that there are many wonderful aspects to being a volunteer program manager.  One of the really good parts for me was how it pushed me to be creative in building relationships with and among my volunteers, and allowed me to witness each volunteer’s personal growth.

For example, at volunteer meetings we often needed to deal with the difficult issues of suicidal callers, which was stressful and traumatic on top of what volunteers were already dealing with when supporting callers.  To ease this, we utilized some positive coping mechanisms, such as the “Community Tree.”

Each volunteer brought in a photo of her or himself, then together we drew leaves.  Each volunteer wrote something on their leaf about what their volunteer experience meant to them.  The activity inspired their own creativity – one volunteer drew a beautiful hummingbird, for example.

The tree lived in my office.  It was a daily reminder of why I did my work, and even when I was feeling burned out it provided a creative escape.

The Bad:

There is a notorious lack of understanding or support from fellow nonprofit staff for volunteer managers. We’ve all felt it. Most of our sector just doesn’t grasp how critical the needs of the volunteers and the volunteer program are to the overall mission. This has always been a decidedly bad aspect of volunteer management for me.

In my own position as a volunteer coordinator I was constantly in conflict with my boss regarding the volunteer program. She wanted me to manage my volunteers as a last resort.  (Top down pressure from aforementioned funding constraints).  So long as the hotline was answered, and client paperwork was in – my job was being done well.  But this was not what my volunteers needed.  I was the constant undercover cop, advocating for my volunteers in super-stealth mode.

The Ugly:

And what is the ugly result of the lack of support for volunteer managers and our programs? Too many of us fall prey to burnout as we fight against the “bad” aspects of volunteer management and become overwhelmed.

The plethora of good and rewarding elements in my volunteer program sustained my energy to a point.  Eventually I found myself fighting not only against my organization’s lack of support, but also against the negativity that was becoming ingrained in me.  I had less energy to support my volunteers positively, let alone myself.  The sign of being burned out is that positive coping skills no longer work and negative coping skills take their place.  I was simultaneously a Dirty Harry and a criminal.

There I was practically at a boiling point, policing my ego while trying to mediate between the hotline, the funders, my supervisor, and my personal joy gained from supporting my volunteers and survivors on the hotline.

I found myself asking myself: “So, do you feel lucky?”

Sometimes it takes a trigger like this to help you self-reflect and realize you are bogged down in “the ugly.”

All I can say is I have come out on the other end, knowing that volunteer management can be incredibly rewarding but not always a walk in (Washington Square) park.  Sometimes you are dodging bullets or jumping off the roof of the Dante Building like Clint Eastwood.  I feel lucky to now be working in San Francisco and supporting volunteer engagement professionals who are similarly struggling with the good, the bad and the ugly.

How do you overcome the bad and the ugly in your work to focus on the good?

(Photo by joxin)